Friday, April 10, 2009

Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III, UNC Press)

As the people of the North measured their disappointment in the wake of disaster at Bull Run, General Nathaniel Lyon set out with another inexperienced Federal army to drive rebel forces from Missouri. The resulting battle at Wilson’s Creek cost Lyon his life, and though his army suffered another defeat, Confederate ambitions in Missouri were dealt a blow from which they never quite recovered.

The first major theme the authors develop demonstrates a unique facet of the armies at this early stage of the war. Drawing upon letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts, they suggest loyalty to the company, and a corresponding pride in their hometown or county, motivated the soldiers of 1861. This contrasts with developments later in the war, when men identified themselves more closely with their regiments.

The authors also focus attention on the unique command situations of Lyon’s army and the tensions between Ben McCulloch, commander of Confederate forces in the area, and Sterling Price, commander of the Missouri State Guard. Lyon emerges as a possibly deranged crusader bent on wiping the stain of secession from the earth, and a man capable of decisive action who nevertheless questioned his decisions on the very eve of battle. His death on the field of battle spared him any recriminations, and established his place among northern heroes in the early days of the war. Piston and Hatcher also detail the difficulties between Price and McCulloch that would eventually lead to an inability to cooperate effectively later in the campaign.

As expected, a substantial portion of the book details the battle itself. The authors do not disappoint. The confusion and chaos of this struggle between two inexperienced armies emerges with surprising clarity and detailed maps complement the text. Piston and Hatcher’s book has already become the standard work on this pivotal campaign. This book will satisfy those searching for a detailed treatment of the battle of Wilson’s Creek, and also serves as a penetrating look into the psychology of the armies that took the filed in the early days of the Civil War.

Note: As this review ran a bit long, I included it as a regular post.

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